This past Friday night, hordes of undergraduates paid to watch 10 Yale men striptease on stage. Ticket sales for the event, hosted by Yale’s chapter of the Alpha Phi sorority, generated revenue for women’s heart disease research. Judging from the packed and squealing room, this event — “King of Hearts” — raised a lot of money. Good for Alpha Phi. Heart disease is, as they pointed out, the number one killer of American women, and such research is a thoroughly worthy cause. Yet if a light-hearted (pun intended) talent show is what passes for hardcore civic service at Yale, then we have some serious work to do.
I’ll leave the obviously concerning sexual and gender normativity of this event to another writer at another time. (Was this actually a brilliant satire of Yale’s presentations of gender? If so, brava — incredible performance art.)
Instead, I want to focus on what this relatively innocuous event says about the state of community service at Yale. Our “service” comes disproportionately from our financial contributions; we are instead stingy with our time. While financial philanthropy is useful, a system structured exclusively around monetary donations is elitist, and frankly lazy. We need to donate our time, as much — if not more — than our money.
Yet, in many ways, Yale does not ask us to donate our time. We do not prepare our own food, clean up after ourselves or even buy our own toilet paper (although somehow, we still have the Student Income Contribution, so I’m not sure how deep this commitment goes). Our only “chore” is to educate ourselves — or, more realistically, to be educated by Yale’s faculty. We journey through Yale wrapped in a mantle of sacred “self-discovery” — we are here to learn, and to learn hard. Aside from excluding students whose time is not fully their own, this mythos of “College Years” as a hiatus from “real life” damages both us and our communities — both present and future.
Without any responsibilities, what sort of citizens are we? If we expect to be waited upon, to live behind swipe-access gates and to have anything we’d ever want just because we’re smart, then how can we claim to be part of an ethical and civic-minded institution? Answer: We can’t — Yale is educating good workers, and not necessarily good people. Yale trains us to spend our time earning, but are we also being taught to give? There is a dearth of a community-minded ethic at Yale; it’s simply not part of our culture, at least not yet.
That “yet” is the operative word here. Let’s get our heads out of our stacks, and reorient our time-energy outward. Although helpful, Yale’s visible philanthropy should not only come from our classist fraternities and sororities. This (frivolous, elitist and altogether onanistic) culture of exclusively “hand up” philanthropy looks a lot more like our broken welfare system than community empowerment. Instead of relegating community service to purchasing a ticket for men wiggling in SSS 114, our “sacrifices” should come from our iCals; not our Venmos.
Few of us have civic-minded projects in our list of extracurriculars. We tend to view volunteering as bimodal — either a Dwight Hall passion or a sorority fundraiser — with little space for anything between. This is because of the time-money breakdown engendered by this system — either you donate your time to activism, or you donate your money to charity. Enough of us have enough disposable income to buy a Woads ticket for charity or to donate $10 for a bougie dinner — cash is not as limited a resource as our time. And therefore, it’s not as meaningful.
To foster this culture of responsibility, Yale should establish a minimum hourly semester community service commitment. By making time-wealth donations mandatory, we will make service part of our culture and our identity. It should be a semester requirement — you can’t just “get it done” in a pricey summer project. Just as we have to know something about science and something about writing to graduate, we should also have some sense of duty to our world.
Instead of “wow”s or “good for you”s, a mandatory community service requirement would foster the understanding and expectation that privilege and responsibility go hand in hand. We’d also create a workforce of people accustomed to engaging with their community in ways that actually help. I don’t really care about skewed intentions — too many of us already volunteer for our resumes, anyway. I don’t care about the few who would choose the “Frontiers and Controversies” community service requirement — enough of us wouldn’t. We’d be helping, which would be good for our present selves and the community around us. Perhaps more importantly, it would also create the expectation that true service is more than a ticket to a charity gala.
It’s an imperfect suggestion, but it’s a start. And more than showing skin, we’ll have some skin in the game.
Amelia Jane Nierenberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .